I would like to talk about the Korean-style birthday celebrations in this blog post. First of all, happy birthday to all having birthdays today. The Koreans do have some special food to eat on their birthdays and there are several important birthdays on which bigger celebration parties are held.
How to say “Happy Birthday” in Korean?
In Korean, “happy birthday” is “생일 축하합니다 (saengil chukha hamnida)” – this is the formal version. There are also other formal and informal versions of saying “Happy Birthday”. Please watch this video to learn how to sing the Korean version of the birthday song and the different ways of saying “happy birthday” in Korean. If you like Song Joong-ki, the main male actor in the hit Korean drama “Descendants of the Sun”, or handsome guys, you should not miss this video in which the handsome Song Joong-ki brings you a birthday cake, sings the birthday song for you and says “I love you” to you at the end of the video – it’s so sweet!
While nowadays Koreans are influenced by the western culture and have birthday cakes on their birthdays with their families and friends, there is a deeply-rooted tradition which is still kept among the Koreans – eating the miyeok-guk (미역국- seaweed soup) on their birthdays.
In the past, after giving birth to the baby, the mother ate the miyeok-guk for about 1 month because it was thought that seaweed, being rich in iodine and calcium, was good for uterine contraction and milk production. Eating miyeok-guk on birthdays is a reminder of the mother’s pain of child-birth and an appreciation of the care given by the mother. Therefore, on someone’s birthday, the Koreans usually greet that person by asking “Have you had miyeok-guk?” In the Korean dramas, you can also see people cooking the miyeok-guk for their family members or friends who are having birthdays.
There are some important birthdays on which Koreans like to celebrate with big feasts or parties, for example, the 100th-day celebration, the first birthday, the 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays.
100th-day celebration (백일)
In the past, when medical science was not that advanced, the infant mortality rate was pretty high. So, people celebrated when their babies survived the first 100th day after birth. However, if the baby was sick on the 100th day, that day would pass without celebration since it was believed that celebration would bring bad luck to the baby in such case.
This tradition is still kept among a lot of Koreans. If the baby is in good health on the first 100th day, the family will celebrate by having parties with their close family members and friends, and Korean food like miyeok-guk, rice cakes and wines are consumed at the parties. There is a belief that if the rice cakes are shared with 100 people, the baby will have a long and healthy life. Therefore, the people will share the rice cakes with as many relatives, friends and neighbours as possible.
Dol is the baby’s first birthday (i.e., first year after birth) and is celebrated by a big feast or party called Doljanchi (돌잔치). Korean food like miyeok-guk, rice cakes and fruits are shared with as many relatives, friends and neighbours as possible since it is believed that the blessings increase with the number of people sharing the food. As for the gifts and tradition of Doljanchi, please refer to my blog post on 17 December 2014. As it is regarded as an important event, many parents dress themselves and their babies in traditional Korean clothing, hanbok, and take sophisticated pictures at professional photo studios to commemorate it.
60th, 70th and 80th birthdays
In the past, it was not so common for people to survive even their 60th birthdays, not to mention 70th and 80th birthdays. Moreover, the 60th birthday is also the day when one completes the 60-year zodiacal cycle so is considered the beginning of another 60-year cycle. Therefore, in the past, people used to hold lavish feasts or parties attended by relatives and friends to celebrate their 60th birthdays (called “hwangap”환갑 in Korean).
However, with the advances in medical sciences, nowadays it is common for people to survive their 60th birthdays. So, instead of having lavish feasts or parties, people tend to celebrate their 60th birthdays by more low-profile events like having meals with their close family members at good restaurants, going on an overseas trip with their family members, or taking silver wedding photos. Lavish feasts or parties are held for 70th birthdays (called “chilsun”칠순 in Korean) and 80th birthdays (called “palsun”팔순 in Korean). On the other hand, recently, the elderly may also choose to celebrate their birthdays by alternative ways like donating money to the people in need or contributing to scholarship programs.
When your birthday comes, you can try to celebrate your birthday in the Korean way by eating miyeok-guk. In fact, I like this Korean tradition very much because it is a reminder of paying respect to one’s mother. Happy Birthday! 🙂
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Yvonne Kim, “Baek-il, 100th Day Celebration in Korea“, Asia Society, 2015-03-11
이해영, 김은영, 신경선, 주은경, 이정란, 이현의, 《생활 속 한국 문화77》, 서울: 랭기지플러스<한글파크>, 2011, 82-83, 160-163쪽
“Birthdays, Korean Style!“, Korea Tourism Organization